THAT SMELLS: how the foul language of odour reflects negative attitudes towards the sense of smell

In English, we have very few words that pertain exclusively to smell and the ones we do have are generally derogatory - i.e. “stench”, “stinky”, “pungent”, “smelly”, or to say something “smells” usually has negative connotations. This reflects and reinforces the negative perception we have of smell in English-speaking countries. We live by the unspoken olfactive motto “no smell is a good smell” and we are constantly trying to cancel out and cover up “bad smells” such as body odour with odour eliminators and culturally deemed “good smells”. Our lack of respect for the sense of smell can even be witnessed in some of our cultural insults. When someone makes a visual mistake a person might say (perhaps politically incorrectly), “are you blind?”, or an auditory one, “are you deaf?”. Nobody would ever say “are you anosmic?” which would refer to one’s inability to smell. Most people don’t even know the word “anosmic” and Microsoft Word spell check doesn’t even recognise it as a real word! A poor sense of smell is almost never the subject of ridicule and conversely, an especially keen or discerning sense of smell is rarely celebrated outside the particularly exclusive world of the fragrance industry.

Can’t Place That Smell? You Must Be American: How Culture Shapes Our Senses” is the name of an article written by the T. M. Luhrmann for the New York Times Sunday Review. Luhrmann writes,

When the research team presented what should have been familiar scents to Americans — cinnamon, turpentine, lemon, rose and so forth — they were terrible at naming them. Americans, they wrote, said things like this when presented with the cinnamon scratch-and-sniff card: “I don’t know how to say that, sweet, yeah; I have tasted that gum like Big Red or something tastes like, what do I want to say? I can’t get the word. Jesus it’s like that gum smell like something like Big Red. Can I say that? O.K. Big Red, Big Red gum.”

(Luhrmann, 2014)

Perhaps this is no surprise in a country where business and consumerism reign king and phrases like “stop and smell the flowers” are spoken with a voice of frivolity considering “time is money”. Since the Scientific Revolution and the Age of Enlightenment, western cultures have valued scientific discovery and logical thinking above all else. The subjectivity and emotional nature of smell might have been seen as threats to this way of thinking and are likely reasons for the sense’s relative disregard in our modern western culture. Additional negativity towards the sense of smell was devised during the Victorian era at which time odour was closely linked to cleanliness and cleanliness to social and moral hierarchy. The streets were rampant with human waste, the graveyards overcrowded with rotting corpses, and the air polluted from coal production and chimneys. People operated under belief that all major diseases at the time (measles, small-pox, cholera) were spread by inhaling bad air, and bad air was synonymous with bad odour. So the upper class sought to eliminate bad odours by using soap to do their laundry while most of the lower class was still using urine to disinfect their clothes (Grigg, 2008). The appearance of cleanliness was just as important, if not more important, than actual cleanliness. Upper class men would carry around perfumed sachets to show others around them that they were bathed and clean (and thus rich and moral). This emphasis on odour as a measure of cleanliness is likely one of the main reasons our culture remains so embarrassed of scent. We value odourlessness over the potential for an odour to be perceived as unfavourable and we eliminate odours from our bodies as well as our conversations so as not to offend others.

But this is not the case in all cultures. Some cultures have a much greater appreciation for the sense of smell and this is reflected in their language and conversations...


This is an excerpt from my MA dissertation entitled How Crossmodal Relationships and Language Affect Our Understanding and Use of the Sense of Smell. If you'd like to read more, pop your email in the "stay updated" box below to be notified when more excerpts are up on my blog or click here to download the entire dissertation for £1.99 from Amazon. Your support is really appreciated!